November 25, 2009, I took office as King County’s 4th Assessor in 5 months. The real estate market was a smoking crater, property tax appeals hit record highs, and the County Council had saddled my office with a starvation budget.
“Business as usual” didn’t cut it. My team took up a new way of doing business to meet tough statutory deadlines, serve you better, and do it all for less!
We’ve achieved a lot in just one hectic year. I hope I’ve earned your confidence – and your support for five more years. “Five more years”? Yes! There is one year left in the unfinished term you elected me to fill in 2009, and I must win the voters’ approval for a full four year term in November 2011.
In 2010 we set the house in order. We preached customer service, practiced smarter management, and recast a budget for modern times. Even bigger changes – the kind that take heavy lifting across agency lines – won’t happen overnight. I need five more years to do the job, and your support is vital.
In Year One, we delivered as promised. [See our point by point recap.] Here are the highlights:
• Real people now answer the phones, freeing you from electronic dead ends.
• A revamped website puts property descriptions, tax records, routine Q & A and helpful links at your fingertips.
• We preserved our skilled workforce by slashing overhead before cutting positions.
• We adjusted residential values to track the dynamics of a volatile market.
• We spent thousands of staff hours defending commercial property appeals – so those contested taxes don’t get shifted onto homeowners.
And more than 100 times, we sat down with community leaders and local officials on their own turf – including all 39 cities in King County.
I personally crisscrossed King County to walk all kinds of local officials through Washington’s complex system of taxes and tax limits. Unusual market movements can create domino effects that wipe out “special purpose district” funding for fire departments, parks, hospitals and county-wide flood control.
Residential taxes on Vashon soared when key pieces of the Island’s commercial base closed their doors. Many residents voiced frustration. One, however, thought her property taxes were a bargain . . . considering the services provided. “Where are you from?” a neighbor pointedly asked. “New York,” she replied.
Nobody enjoys paying taxes, but taxes pay for services we value and vote for. And as my counterparts from places like Phoenix, Las Vegas and South Florida remind me, things could be worse.
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And looking forward
Times like these call for a new way of doing business – putting tools and talent together to raise productivity and improve service.
• Better wireless applications could give field appraisers more productive hours in the field.
• E-Permitting would cut red tape in building departments all over the County.
• A new Property Base System would relieve the headaches of our COBOL legacy (c. 1977).
• E-notification would save printing and mailing many of our 750,000 annual property statements.
• Simplified models could produce assessments the taxpayer doesn’t need a PhD to figure out.
• The appeals process could show comparable sales online, giving a concerned taxpayer options short of formal hearings.
Experts suggest the economy will take at least five years to recover completely. What will we do in the meantime?
We’re thinking big!
The Assessor’s office deals with data from district boundaries to parcel descriptions to ownership and building characteristics. Beyond tax administration, this data is vital to Records and Elections, land use and building permits, finance and GIS (mapping) applications.
Integrating these functions on a common basis – saving money and improving service for all – calls for a multi-agency effort with singular leadership. That’s what I have in mind for five more years of my career in public service.
What will it take?
A multi-year, multi-agency systems project is going to take consensus on roles, relationships, shared investments and long-term commitments.
And that in turn will take buy-in from elected officials and technocrats in separate units of local government … state legislators … and my fellow Assessors around the State.
We can get moving now – if you let the key players know I’ll be here thru 2015.
Give me five more years — support me this year and elect me to a full four-year term this fall — and I’ll give you my best.